Europe’s kinky over-the-knee boot has it all: popes, painters, polenta, paramours, poets, political puerility and potentates. Its dreamy light and sumptuous landscapes seem made for romance, and its three millennia of history, culture and cuisine seduces just about everyone.
You can visit Roman ruins, gawk at Renaissance art, stay in tiny medieval hill towns, go skiing in the Alps, explore the canals of Venice and gaze at beautiful churches. Naturally you can also indulge in the pleasures of la dolce viita: good food, good wine and improving your wardrobe.
Full country name: Italian Republic
Area: 301,230 sq km
Population: 57.99 million
Capital City: Rome (pop 3.8 million)
Language: Italian, French, German, Serbian, Croatian
Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 6% Jewish, Muslim and Protestant
Head of State: President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
Head of Government: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
GDP: US$1.45 trillion
GDP per capita: US$25,100
Major Industries: tourism, engineering, textiles, chemicals, food processing, motor vehicles, clothing and footwear
Major Trading Partners: EU (especially Germany, France, UK, Spain, Netherlands), USA
Member of EU: Yes
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: EUU citizens require only a passport or ID card to stay or work in Italy for as long as they like. They are, however, required to register with a ‘questura’ (police station) if they take up residence and obtain a
Health risks: Rabies (This is only found in the Alps), Leishmaniasis (This is found in coastal regions), Lyme Disease
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer) (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 39
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
Italy is at its best in spring (April-May) and autumn (October-November). During these seasons, the scenery is beautiful, the temperatures are pleasant and there are relatively few crowds. Try to avoid August, as this is the time that most Italians ta
Religious, cultural and historical events pepper the Italian calendar. The pre-Easter Carnivale is closely associated with Venice; Holy Week Easter processions are especially flamboyant at Taranto, Chieti and Sicily; and Florence explodes a cart full of fireworks on Easter Sunday. Festivals honouring patron saints are also particularly colourful events; for example the Festas di San Nicola in Bari and San Gennaro in Naples, the Festival of Snakes in Abruzzo (May) and the Festa of Sant’Antonio in Padua (June). Events betraying more than a hint of history include the Race of the Candles and Palio of the Crossbow in Gubbio (May), the Sardinian Cavalcade (May), the Regata of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics (which rotates between Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Genoa, and is held in June), Il Palio in Siena (July & August) and Venice’s Historic Regatta (September).
It’s hard to say what you’ll find most breathtaking about the eternal city – the arrogant opulence of the Vatican, the timelessness of the Forum, the top speed of a Fiat Bambino, the millions of cats in the Colosseum, trying to cross a major intersection, or the bill for your latte.
Sightseeing in Rome is
Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe’s most beautiful coastline. The road hugs the zigzagging bends and curves of the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing picture-postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like matchbox houses.
Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub. Perched halfway up Mt Subasio, looking over Perugia, the visual impact of its shimmering white marble buildings is magnificent. The town’s many churches include Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro and St Clare.
The city is dominated by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore – a hill fortress that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia. St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica two years after his death in 1228. It’s a magnificent tribute to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated forum and the pillared facade of
The cultural and historical impact of Florence is overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy’s most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval centre that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe.
For eye-watering sights, you won’t need to venture far from Florence’s medieval core, a Renaissance wonderland containing the graceful span of Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo’s skyscraping dome, the gilded splendour of Basilica di San Lorenzo and the well-hung Uffizi gallery.
The hard-working Milanese run their busy metropolis with efficiency and aplomb. It is the country’s economic engine room, home to Italy’s stock market and business centres. This stylish city is also the world’s design capital and rivals Paris as a leading fashion centre.
Milan is a sprawling metropolis, but most of its attractions are concentrated in its centre. Its hub is the Duomo, a fantastic Gothic confection topped by the Maddonina (our little Madonna), Milan’s protectress. Not far away is La Scala, one of the world’s great opera houses.
Naples is raucous, polluted, anarchic, deafening, crumbling and grubby. It’s also a lot of fun. Superbly positioned on a bay, Naples has a little – and often a lot – of everything. It pulsates with noisy street markets and swarms of people buzzing around on Vespas with no regard for traffic rules.
Naples’ historic centre features a church-encrusted piazza and some seriously elaborate architecture. In addition to the usual Italian quota of castles, musuems and palazzi, Naples has the priceless treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum at its doorstep.
Siena had been a bustling economic centre based on its textiles, saffron and wine in the 12th century. At this time many buildings were created in Sienese Gothic style, giving this town its distinctive style. Visitors enjoy the cafe-lined square Il Campo and the imposing St Dominic’s Church.
La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, captivating city of canals and palaces.or tawdry sewer alive with crowds and charlatans? Venice’s nature is dual: water and land, long history and doubtful future, airy delicacy and dim melancholy. When this precious place sinks, the world will be the poorer.
Take time to meander – losing yourself in the maze of canals and lanes is one of Venice’s principal pleasures. The cluster of sights around the Piazza San Marco are heart-clutchingly beautiful, but the more secret pleasures of the hushed backstreets are just as entrancing.
Off the Beaten Track
The five magnificent villages of the Cinque Terre are wedged into the impossibly mountainous countryside that borders coastal Liguria in the northwest of the country. The towns are connected by a scenic pathway that winds along the terraced hillside through olive groves and vineyards, and are car free.
Riomaggiore overlooks a tiny cove, and fishing boats rule the roost, lying along the shore and even in the small square. Lovers’ Lane links the village with Manarola, the most picturesque of the five villages. Corniglia is not for the faint-hearted, as it sits high above the water and is reached by tortuous steps. Vernazza makes the most of its sea views, with a promenade and a piazza overlooking the water. Finally, Monterosso overlooks the only real beach in the vicinity, and features huge statues carved into the rocks that overlook it.
Just south of Salerno, Paestum is home to the country’s best-preserved relics of the Magna Graecia colonies. It is an enigmatic site, with three Doric temples dominating a flower-strewn, grassy plain. It includes the temples of Ceres and Neptune, a forum, a basilica and city walls. The museum houses a collection of friezes, rounding off one of the best collections of ancient architecture in the world. The 12km (7mi) island is one of the few protected natural environments in Italy’s south, known as the Woods of Diana.
Only 14 of the original 72 towers remain, but this wonderfully preserved medieval city in Tuscany is still known as San Gimignano of the Fine Towers. The towers reflect a period of quarrlesome one-upmanship in Italian history.
Sardinia has some fascinating medieval sections and beautiful beaches. There’s also the magnificent and relatively unspoiled Costa Verde coastline, the beaches and grottoes around the tourist enclave of Alghero, and the trekking and traditional culture offered in Nuoro Province.
The island of Sicily is a place of contrasts, from the crumbling grandeur of its capital, Palermo, to the Greek ruins at Syracuse, volatile Mt Etna and the Aeolian Islands. It’s home to touristy Lipari, jet-set Panarea, rugged Vulcano and spectacularly spouting Stromboli. Squatting strategically in the Mediterranean, and its largest island, Sicily has attracted waves of invaders and colonisers, whose detritus includes Greek temples, Roman ruins, Norman churches and castles, and Arab and Byzantine domes. Sicilians remain strongly tied to the land, despite the summer heat, which can be utterly scorching. Luckily, the beaches are superb.
Other sights include the magnificent 12th-century cathedral at Monreale and the touristy but unmissable Taormina, with its Greek theatre, panoramic public gardens, palazzo, cathedral and beaches.
Catch a boat from the Gargano Peninsula in Apulia to the three main islands of the Tremiti group: San Domino, San Nicola and Capraia. The islands remain relatively undeveloped and unspoiled, and offer a great escape from mainland concerns. San Domino boasts sandy beaches, with secluded coves, rocky pools and grottoes.
San Nicola’s Church of Santa Maria, founded in the 11th century by Benedictine monks, features a black Madonna, an 11th-century floor mosaic and a Byzantine crucifix.
If the museums, galleries and espresso are not enough to occupy your time in Italy, there are plenty of options for the active and adrenalin-seeking. The Italian Alps offer well-marked trails and strategically placed refuges for long-distance hiking. There are plenty of excellent ski resorts in the Italian Alps – particularly in the Dolomites, which have the most dramatic scenery. Windsurfing and sailing are extremely popular, and at most beach resorts it’s possible to rent boats and equipment. Cycling is a great way to see the country.
While Italy’s status as a single political entity is relatively recent (1861), its strategic Mediterranean position made it a target for colonisers and opportunists fairly early on in human history. The Etruscans were the first people to rule the peninsula, arriving somewhere between the 12th and 8th century BC. They were eventually subsumed within the mighty Roman Empire, leaving little cultural evidence, other than the odd tomb. The ancient Greeks, their contemporaries, set up a few colonies along the southern coast that became known as Magna Graecia and developed into independent city states. Thus the greater glory that was Rome was itself the offspring of Etruscan and Greek cultures.
The first Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, setting in motion the dogma of democracy, the linguistic nightmare of Latin and one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. The Republic’s defeat of Carthage (near present-day Tunis) and Hellenic Macedonia during the three Punic Wars cleared the way for ultimate expansion into Spain, Britain, North Africa and present-day Iraq. Meanwhile, relative peace at home enabled the infrastructure of civilisation to spread – roads, aqueducts, cites. A slave-driven lifestyle and economy triumphed over the concept of people power, and the reigns of the Republic were increasingly taken in hand by the military and, ultimately, the dictatorship.
The empire grew so large, it was eventually divided into eastern and western sectors. Already, however, the bloodthirsty theatrics of regicide and intrigue were planting the seeds of its eventual destruction. Christianity was embraced by Constantine in 313, and the empire’s capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The western arm of the empire was undone by plague, famine and tribal incursions from the north, and was officially declared null and void in 476 when Odovacar, a German warrior, dubbed himself ruler. The Eastern Roman Empire clung on, even prospering in fits and starts, until overrun by the Turks in 1453.
Italy entered a period peopled by Goths and forever ostracised as the ‘Dark Ages’. Successive waves of Lombards, Franks, Saracens, Germans and Normans invaded the peninsula and claimed in various degrees the lost title of empire and emperor, culminating in Frankish Charlemagne’s crowning as emperor in 800. The south was dominated by Muslim Arabs until usurped by Normans. This ethnic cocktail began to settle in the 12th century, just when the next big chapter in textbook history was taking shape. Powerfully combative and competitive city states arose in the north, supporting either the pope (power within the peninsula vested in the papal states) or the emperor (usually a foreign power). The rise of cities and a merchant class culminated in the Renaissance of the 15th century. Painters, architects, poets, philosophers and sculptors produced unsurpassed works of genius, despite the turmoil of intercity warfare and invasion by countries to the north. First Spain and then Austria controlled the peninsula during the ensuing centuries, followed briefly by Napoleon’s imperial flourish.
The post-Napoleon shake-up led directly to the drive for unification of the 19th century, led by Garibaldi, Cavour and Mazzini. The Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861, although Venice was not prised away from Austria until 1866 and papal claims remained an issue until 1870, when Rome officially joined the young nation. No label of unity, however, could hide the huge cultural and social differences that split the industrialised north from the poverty-stricken south.
Economic crisis and fickle politics dogged the new nation in the ensuing decades, as Italy muddled through WWI and became riddled with industrial unrest in the early 1920s. In a memorably unwise employment decision, the king asked one Benito Mussolini to take the reins of government under the auspices of his Fascist Party. Il Fusto soon became head of state, outlawed the opposition, controlled the press and trade unions and cut franchise by two-thirds. His relationship with Hitler soured after a series of military disasters and an Allied invasion, eventually culminating in a fatal dose of rough justice at the hands of partisans in April 1945.
The postwar years have been coloured by extremism: the extreme violence of terrorists such as the Brigatte Rosse, extreme centre-right politics, extreme economic boom and economic crisis, extreme corruption and bribery in extremely high places – and an extremely cynical and fatigued public.
Italy’s parliament has a reputation for scandal and resignation, and at times it has left Italy virtually ungoverned and utterly chaotic. The 1998 election of Massimo D’Alema, who formed a center-left coalition that included Communists for the first time in half a century, was seen as a shot in the arm for left-wing politics. However, in April 2000 he resigned; his replacement, Giuliano Amato, lasted only a little over a year before one of Italy’s richest and most powerful men, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, got the job. Two years into his mandate, Burlusconi has dissappointed many and continues to fight corruption charges arising from Tangentopoli investigations.
The Italians were no slouches when it came to music, as they invented both the piano and our system of musical notation, as well as producing Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Verdi, Puccini, Bellini and Rossini.
Writers from Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Livy and Cicero to Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ficino, Mirandola and Vasari all sprang from Italian loins. Modern literary Italian appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries, developing out of its Latin heritage, the country’s many dialects and the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, who wrote chiefly in the Florentine dialect.
Cinema would not be the same without Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren or directors Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Italy’s many regional cucine, while remaining distinctive to their regions of origin, have undergone a pan-Italian fusion in the hands of chefs, evolving into a unique cuisine that is justifiably world famous. Cooking styles vary notably, from the rich and creamy dishes of the north to the hot and spicy specialities of the south. Northern Emilia-Romagna has produced the best-known dishes – spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and tortellini – and is also home to the best prosciutto and mortadella. Liguria is the home of pesto, that mainstay of cafés worldwide. Spectacular vegetable and pasta dishes feature just as predominantly as seafood and exotic meats – anyone for frog rissotto, donkey steak or entrail pudding? Desserts – cassata, cannoli, zabaglione, granita and marzipan – come into their own in Sicily, while Sardinia is famous for its spit-roasted piglet. Coffee, beer and wine are of course magnificent countrywide.
Dubbed the world’s ‘living art gallery’, Italy has more culture than you can shake a paintbrush at. Whether it’s a broken pillar rising up through the linoleum floor of a train station or a baroque church overlooking a cracked antique pediment in the Forum, history and culture surround you. Outside there are Etruscan tombs, Greek temples, cat-infested Roman ruins, Moorish architecture and statue-filled baroque fountains to gawp at; inside, you can swoon to Roman sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, beatific Madonnas from Giotto to Titian, gargantuan baroque tombs and trompe l’oeil ceilings.
Italy’s instantly recognisable boot shape kicks its way into the Adriatic, Ionian, Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas – all of which form part of the Mediterranean Sea. The islands of Elba, Sardinia, Ischia, Capri, the Aeolians and Sicily lie offshore. Mountains feature prominently in Italy’s topography, and bolster its landlocked borders all the way from Genoa in the west to Trieste in the east. Italy’s backbone is formed by the Apennines, extending from Genoa right down to the soccer ball that bounces off the toe of Calabria: Sicily. The Po River Valley in the country’s northeast forms the largest lowland area, and is heavily populated and industrialised as a result. Underground rambunctiousness is evident from the country’s three active volcanoes – Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands, Vesuvius near Naples and Etna on Sicily – and the devastation wrought by earthquakes, especially fierce in 1908 and 1980. Beauty abounds in Italy but, unfortunately, so does pollution, particularly in the big cities and along the coast
A couple of millennia of human occupation, coupled with the locals’ love of hunting, has extinguished many animal species once endemic to Italy. You might spot a brown bear or a lynx if you’re lucky, and the Alpine regions are still home to wolves, marmots, chamois and deer. Mouflon sheep and wild boars and cats can be found on Sardinia, while in the skies falcons, hawks and golden eagles dodge the hunters’ birdshot.
Italy’s climate varies from north to south and from lowland to mountain top. Winters are long and severe in the Alps, with snow falling as early as mid-September. The northern regions experience chilly winters and hot summers, while conditions become milder as you head south. The sirocco, the hot and humid African wind that affects regions south of Rome, produces at least a couple of stiflingly hot weeks in summer.
From west to east, France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia form a rugby scrum to the north of Italy.